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Monday, September 30, 2013

Mass. casino foes continue to fight

Mass. casino foes continue to fight
Group starts trying to overturn law
Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013

They have almost no money, scant political support and no legal way, at the moment, to do the very thing their group exists to accomplish.

But casino opponents trying to overturn the law that legalized three casinos and a slot parlor in Massachusetts fight on, convinced victory is still possible.

"We look to stories of our faith and remember battles when David can beat Goliath," said the Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches.

Casino opposition is organized into a group called Repeal the Casino Deal. Last weekend, it started gathering the roughly 69,000 signatures needed to put a question overturning the law on the November 2014 ballot. Even if the group gets the needed signatures within the two-month deadline, the efforts could die in court.

That's because Attorney General Martha Coakley ruled their ballot question unconstitutional. Casino opponents have appealed, but if they lose, it won't matter if they've gathered a million signatures, the fight is over.

Brian Ashmankas, a Millbury selectman who's organizing the signature drive, said the long odds aren't relevant to him.

"We're on the right side of this," he said.

The state's 2011 casino law created up to three casino licenses and a slots parlor license. Proponents promise a host of benefits, including thousands of jobs and new economic activity in places that badly need it.

But opponents say casinos siphon money by the millions from local businesses to support an industry that harms families and increases crime.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone believes his fellow Democrats, including Gov. Deval Patrick, made an "historic mistake" passing the casino bill, and voters deserve a chance to undo it.

"You do not build communities with casinos," Curtatone said. "Casinos polarize consumers and take money off Main Street with the lure that you'll win big on Easy Street."

The opposition melds diverse ideologies, from liberals such as Curtatone to conservative groups like the Massachusetts Family Institute.

"We've agreed to disagree on the other issues," said Kris Mineau of the institute. "We're Christians, and Jesus said if you can agree with your adversary, do so quickly."

Among the hurdles for casino opponents, Coakley's ruling is the biggest.

In her Sept. 4 decision, Coakley said applicants for a casino license - who pay an initial $400,000 fee - have "implied contracts" with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and those contracts are considered property. So a ban on casinos or a slots parlor would be an unconstitutional taking of property.

Casino opponents say Coakley's opinion defies legal precedent. But their appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court won't be heard until after the Nov. 20 deadline for collecting signatures, so they have to collect them and hope for a favorable ruling.

State Rep. Robert Koczera, a New Bedford Democrat and casino proponent, said casinos are simply capturing business that's leaving the state. He believes that even if the question reaches the ballot, casino opponents are "fighting a lost cause."

Opponents dismiss the substantial economic benefits of casinos only because they're wearing ideological blinders, and most voters don't share their views, he said.

"You're talking about thousands of [LOW WAGE] jobs, so I fail to see where it's not a win-win," Koczera said.

Tim Vercellotti of the Western New England University Polling Institute said it's unlikely public sentiment has changed much since statewide polls taken before the law's passage, which showed about half of respondents favoring casinos and a third opposed.

Those opinions were formed in a debate that preceded the law by years, and nothing dramatic has happened since to change people's minds, Vercellotti said.

In the Attleboro area, opponents are more focused on plans by Plainridge Racecourse in Plainville to obtain the slot machine license than doing away with the state law.

Many Plainville residents see a racino as an opportunity to revitalize the town. They voted Sept. 10 by a 3 to 1 margin to approve slots for the track.

However, there is a local group of opponents of the plans who call themselves No Plainville Racino.

Mary-Ann Greanier, head of that group, has cited concerns with the impact of a slot machine parlor such as problem gambling and other social ills as well as traffic. Greanier also has questioned the validity of the referendum results, questioning the process used for the election.

In neighboring Foxboro, a racino committee is working to address the impact Plainridge would have on that town. Committee members and residents, as the Plainville opposition group has, cite social ills and traffic.

Sun Chronicle reporter Stephen Peterson contributed to this report.

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